All across the Old Dominion are reminders of the commonwealth’s role in the Civil War: statues of Confederate generals and generic Confederate soldiers, schools named for the leaders of the Confederacy, highways with names evocative of the Old South. And in 2020, 155 years after the Civil War ended at Appomattox Court House, people are still battling over the meaning and purpose of the conflict.
Virginia, as the northernmost of the Confederate states, was the scene of the most battles in the war, so it’s little wonder there are so many markers and monuments across the state. It’s also little wonder those monuments are at the center of a long-simmering battle over what message they convey in 2020.
More than 20 years ago in an early skirmish of the war over Virginia’s history, the General Assembly declared that statues on public property in the commonwealth that are “war memorials” cannot be removed except by action of the Assembly itself.
Senate Bill 620, sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, would change that law to give localities control of such monuments, statues and memorials in their jurisdictions.
When the Charlottesville City Council voted in 2016 to remove statues of two Confederate generals from public property, the resulting furor from opponents rages to this day in state politics.
The statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson stand in prominent spots in downtown Charlottesville, the statue of Lee astride his horse Traveller sits atop a granite base in Lee Park next to the main library while the equestrian statue of Jackson is near the city courthouse. Both were dedicated in the early 1920s, the gift of a professor at the University of Virginia. The dedication of the Lee statue in 1924 was the occasion of one of the largest gatherings of the Ku Klux Klan in city history and took place at the height of Jim Crow apartheid in Virginia and across the South.
Charlottesville leaders had been debating the statues and the message they convey in the 21st century for several years. Earlier in 2016, a special commission recommended council keep the statues in place but add markers and other exhibits to explain more of their historical context. Council, however, decided to ignore the panel’s recommendation and voted to remove them altogether.
Two protest rallies in 2017 followed, one of which was the deadly Unite the Right rally on Aug. 12 that attracted thousands of white nationalists and neo-Confederates from across the country and resulted in the death of anti-rally demonstrator Heather Heyer when a neo-Nazi from Ohio drove his car into a crowd of protesters.
Court battles also ensued as Southern heritage groups sought to prevent the statues’ removal. In April 2019, a circuit court judge ruled the statues are memorials, under state law, and not under the control of local officials; late last year, he awarded the plaintiffs more than $350,000 in legal fees, to be paid by the city of Charlottesville.
A year before Charlottesville thrust the issue of Confederate memorials and statues onto the stage, Danville was ground zero in the heritage battles. On the grounds of the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History — housed in the last Capitol of the Confederacy, the old Sutherlin mansion — is a rather nondescript stone pedestal with a barren flag pole attached. Prior to 2015, a Confederate flag flew from the pole, until City Council voted to remove it.
Southern heritage activists, in a foretaste of their legal strategy in Charlottesville, argued the pedestal and attached flag pole constituted a war memorial, thus protecting it under state law. It was a legal argument they lost, based on the terms of the gift of the pedestal and pole to the city in the 1990s, but it gave Virginians a peek of what was to come in the near future.
All across Virginia are more than 200 statues and monuments to the “greats” of the Civil War — statues of generic Confederate soldiers given to counties by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Jim Crow era of the 1920s or in the time of Massive Resistance against school desegregation in the 1950s, towering statues of Lee, Jackson and other luminaries of the Confederacy.
Local opinions about those statues and monuments run the gamut from those who want them left untouched to those who want more historical context incorporated to those who want their outright removal, believing the message they send is one that’s incompatible with America today. Given the choice, some communities, speaking through their local elected officials, would decide to keep them while others would vote to remove them.
We believe the General Assembly should give local governments that right — if local residents and their elected representatives want to remove these monuments, let them; if they don’t, fine … it’s a local matter.
What it is not is a matter the General Assembly should dictate to local governments about. We urge legislators to advance Senate Bill 620 to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for his signature.